Education, Military, USA

Teaching, Ideology, & Neutrality

I had a substitute teacher in my classroom the other day when I was out for some PD.  I got a chance to meet him when I arrived back at the building prior to the end of the day.  He was a cool guy with an interesting story.  Just in the brief conversation that I had with him, I suspected that he and I might have some ideological differences.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I like a sub that offers a change of pace from me. It keeps my kids on their toes.

It wasn’t until a couple days later that I noticed the bumper sticker.

In the corner of my whiteboard, I have a bumper sticker that I found in a filing cabinet underneath a pile of posters.  It’s a historic bumper stick, created in 1979 by a group called the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.  The bumper sticker reads: “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

I’ve had this bumper sticker for a while.  It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I appreciate the premise.  However, on this day, it wasn’t the bumper sticker that caught my eye, but the slip of paper that was hanging beneath it.  It read: “Were it not for a strong, well-funded military, our schools would not have the freedom to do what they do!”  Following the quote there was a hyphen indicating the quote’s author.  Following the hyphen was the name of my sub.

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I was not sure how to feel about this at first, but I definitely felt things.  Part of me felt annoyed that a guest in my classroom would have the audacity to make such an alteration to the physical space.  Part of me felt angry at the implication that the messages that I am providing to my students are somehow misleading or harmful.  Part of me felt impressed by the balls and conviction of such a bold, unapologetic move.  And part of me felt a tinge of self-doubt that perhaps my sub had a point.  I spent some time thinking about those things, and I think that I know how I feel now.

Both of the quotes make legitimate claims.  It is legitimate to claim that a strong, well-funded military allows Americans to enjoy many of the freedoms that we enjoy, but it is also legitimate to claim that we spend too much money on our military, particularly when compared to other potential areas for public investment, i.e. education.  To be sure, a strong military and an educated populace are both essential components of a free country, and the debate over allocation of resources towards establishing each of those components is a fair one.  In hanging his quote next to my bumper sticker, my sub definitely did his part to facilitate a conversation that undoubtedly has a place in social studies classrooms.  That is why my sub’s quote continues to hang on my whiteboard.

But what motivated him to do it?  What motivated my sub to go through the trouble of typing that quote, printing it out, cutting it down to size, and hanging it on my whiteboard?  The way that I see it, there are two possible explanations.

The first is that my sub is a self-appointed member of the neutrality police.  He believes that high school classrooms are places where knowledge should always be presented in a way that is unbiased and objective, and takes it upon himself to address any potential violations of this most important principle.  However, something tells me that this guy is not going around posting Peace Corps flyers next to National Guard advertisements or pinning re-elect Obama buttons next to portraits of Ronald Reagan, meaning that there must be a different explanation.

That explanation is ideology.  In my bumper sticker, my sub saw an ideology that he did not like, so he decided to amend it with one that he liked better.  Since he names himself as the author, I think that I can safely assume that the ideology expressed in my sub’s quote is his own, and I’m guessing that the sub also assumes that the ideology expressed on the bumper sticker is mine.  In that assumption, he is partially correct.  I do sympathize with some of the concerns expressed on that bumper sticker—that the spending and veneration we commit to our military existed for our educational institutions as well.  But aside from that ideological overlap, there is another, more pedagogically powerful reason that that quote hangs on my whiteboard: it makes my students question things.

In a school that is chalked full of national guard posters and pencils, college acceptance recognition for current seniors who will soon be members of the United States Army, Navy, and Airforce, and the best damn Veteran’s Day ceremony that you’ve ever seen, that bumper sticker makes my students question, just for a brief moment, whether the veneration that we provide to our armed forces can sometimes be just a little bit much.  In a school that is the constant victim of budget cuts and failed bonds, growing class sizes and shrinking resources, that bumper sticker makes my students consider, just for a brief moment, whether the value that we place on our schools and on their education can sometimes be just a little bit insufficient.  It’s a 3” by 12” piece of paper that makes my students question the pro-military messages that they are subliminally bombarded with every day of every school year. They may choose to embrace the sentiment expressed in that bumper sticker, or they may choose to reject it, but at the very least, just for a brief moment, they are asked to consider it.

I don’t have a problem with ideology in education.  In fact, I don’t think it is possible to avoid it.  Nothing in education is neutral.  Even neutral itself is an ideology.  As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once wrote, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”  Our goal as educators should not be to eliminate bias—it should be to teach students how to detect it, analyze it, and ultimately choose whether to embrace its sentiments or reject them.

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Lots of different perspectives are included in my classroom, both in the content that I teach and in the voices of my students.  As a source of authority, I usually don’t like to include my own.  However, in certain situations I will share my perspectives on issues, not in an attempt to convince students to think like I do—although I’m perfectly happy to convince them if they’ll let me—but to explicitly teach them a more important lesson: while I may be a source of authority, I am not an ultimate source of truth.

I’m an adult.  I’m educated and informed, but ultimately, students should question me just like they question their books, their newspapers, and any quotes that might hang on their classroom whiteboard.  I want students to hear different perspectives, understand different perspectives, consider how different perspectives might merge with or challenge their own, and then ultimately, choose whether or not to accept whatever it is that those perspectives have to offer.

I have my own perspectives and opinions on everything that I teach.  Education is an inherently political act, and there’s no doubt that my leanings and biases enter into my classroom even when I’m actively trying to suppress them.  But because my classroom is built around teaching students not what to think, but how to think for themselves, I don’t shy away from the ideological.  I hope that my sub approaches his teaching with the same humility.

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Immigration, Politics, Race, USA

The CAPS LOCK President: Why I like nuance, and why Donald Trump doesn’t have it

I don’t support the death penalty.  I believe that there’s something to living in a country that stakes its claim to a higher moral ground—that doesn’t subscribe to an outdated, eye-for-an-eye philosophy and refuses to treat even its most despicable citizens with the same inhumanity with which they treated others.

That said, I’m not vehemently opposed to it either.  Life-in-prison sentences cost a lot of public money, and we could probably find better uses for that money than caring for convicted murders (although some studies do suggest that capital punishment is actually more expensive than keeping somebody in prison for life).  Also, while it’s easy to take the moral high ground as a detached, objective observer, I’m not so sure that I could maintain that ideological purity if a capital punishment-worthy crime were to touch me more personally.

Which is why I’m not offended when Donald Trump expresses his desire that the man responsible for the recent Manhattan truck attack be put to death.  This guy is a monster of the worst kind.  He brutally murdered eight strangers, has admitted to his crimes and their premeditation, and has even expressed a sense of accomplishment from the results of his deadly actions.  If there was ever a person who was deserving of the death penalty, this guy is that person.

But like a lot of disagreements that I have with our president, it’s not always so much about what he says, but the way that he says it.

Donald Trump could have simply stated his hope that this man is prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and that he receives the harshest form of punishment available under our criminal justice system.  He might have even mentioned that, in a case like this one, capital punishment seems like an appropriate response.  But Donald Trump didn’t do that.  Instead, Donald Trump used his Twitter account to call for the man’s head in all CAPITAL LETTERS.

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This is why I can never get behind Donald Trump.  In a world with so many shades of grey—so many issues in which nuance and complexities hugely matter—Donald Trump has chosen a platform of black or white.  He’s chosen exaggerations, simplifications, and generalizations over any position that would require more than an ounce of intellect.  Everything is the “best” or the “biggest” or the “most” or the “greatest”.  I guess that’s acceptable if you’re Joe Blow by the water-cooler (who coincidentally voted for Trump), but when you’re President of the United States, it’s inexcusable.

Take the national anthem protests by NFL athletes—an issue in which there is all kinds of nuance to be had. Do you support the players right to free expression while questioning the effectiveness of their use of that freedom?  Do you challenge their indictment of American police while also recognizing the reasons that people of color might feel differently? Do you distinguish between sitting down and taking a knee, and the conscientious shift made by Colin Kaepernick following a conversation with a former Green Beret?  Not if you’re Donald Trump.  If you’re Donald Trump, you just scream for owners to FIRE those sons of bitches that are disrespecting OUR HERITAGE, never pausing to consider the fact that the heritage experienced by the “our” in your almost-all white audience may be a little bit different than the heritage experienced by “those” players peacefully kneeling on the field.

The lack of nuance was pretty evident on the campaign trail, too.  Donald Trump didn’t run a campaign of “border security being a legitimate concern for even the most dogged supporter of American diversity.”  He ran a campaign of “BUILD THE WALL!”  Donald Trump didn’t run a campaign of “serious questions over Hillary Clinton’s careless and dangerous use of her private email server.”  He ran a campaign of “LOCK HER UP!”  And sadly, that’s probably what won him the election.

Which begs the question: Is this the authentic Donald Trump, or is it all part of an elaborate strategy?  Does Donald Trump really believe the hyperbolic bullshit that comes out of his own mouth, or is he just throwing out red meat to a certain sector of his base in order to secure their support?  Either way, the answer is unsettling.

In Trump’s defense, the criticisms levied against him haven’t always been all that nuanced either.  It’s become waaaay too easy, hip, and cool to hate Donald Trump in certain circles, and while I can’t say that I’m unhappy with peoples’ lack of satisfaction towards our president, I’m also not all that impressed with the casual tossing around of terms like “racist,” “fascist,” and “white supremacist” from people who seem to be echoing the opinions of others rather than carefully and critically forming their own.

The solution to Trump cannot be to fight fire-with-fire, or to fight the outrageous with the absurd.  That response does no more for civil discourse than the state-sponsored execution of murderers does for curbing violent crime.  The only way to fight the CAPS LOCK president is to disable that function on our own keyboards, type with complete sentences, and insist on saying things that reflect the complicated reality in which we actually live, not the distorted dystopia that the demagogue in the White House likes to portray.

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Politics, Race, USA

Thoughts on Charlottesville: The necessity of conversation

This morning I finally watched the VICE documentary on the race-based terror that rocked the city of Charlottesville last weekend. The footage is nothing short of terrifying.  Even though I have no illusions about the pernicious role that racism continues to play in our society, I was still shocked to see that a white supremacist rally of that magnitude could take place in America in 2017.

Trump’s response to the rally was disgraceful.  Even if Trump himself is not a racist or a white supremacist, it’s pretty clear that his presidency has emboldened many people who are.  This was Trump’s opportunity to explicitly separate himself from those groups, but he didn’t take it.  Instead, Trump once again blew his racist dog whistle, refusing to denounce the hateful elements of his base that were so vital to his electoral success.

184503.pngHis attempts to draw equivalencies between neo-Nazis and radical leftist groups like Antifa are also total bullshit.  I personally have no shortage of criticisms that I could offer about certain elements of today’s far-left—their affinity for identity politics, their silencing of free speech on college campuses, their ever-evolving policing of political correctness—but I would still stop far short of equating them to Nazis. One side fights against racism whereas the other side fights for it, and no matter how misguided the means of the former group may be, I’ll take them over the latter group any day.

Moral outrage is definitely the appropriate response to what happened last weekend in Charlottesville.  If images of torch-wielding neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” don’t make your stomach sink, then you have some introspection to do.  However, as justifiable as our moral outrage might be, I still believe that conversation is the only solution.

The conversations that need to take place are not with the relatively tiny (albeit far too big) fraction of the population that self-identify as neo-Nazis or white supremacists, but with the people who, while not neo-Nazis or white supremacists themselves, still support small pieces of the agenda that motivated those far-right assemblies last weekend in Charlottesville.  These are the people who question the removal of Confederate monuments, the people who view groups like Antifa as legitimate threats to American democracy, the people who possess justifiable concerns over immigration and radical Islam, and most likely, the people who voted for Donald Trump.

At no point in this presidency have Trump supporters been more ready to jump ship than they are right now.  They are ready to seize the opportunity that the president did not and separate themselves from racism and bigotry.  They are ready to open up a dialogue with people of differing beliefs on how to move forward from some of the ugliest days in our country’s recent past.  But if we insist on labeling everyone whose outrage we deem as insufficient as an ally of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, then there are no conversations to be had.  If we don’t throw Trump supporters a lifering, then they are not going to jump ship.

Conversation doesn’t necessarily mean compromise.  It means finding common ground, validating beliefs that are acceptable, challenging beliefs that are not, and above all else, recognizing the humanity in the person on the other side of the table.

Everyone is a product of their life experiences.  No one is born a racist just like no one is born a criminal.  Those behaviors are learned.  They can be unlearned as well.

It’s easy to be the purest person in the room—to righteously shout your worldview from the hilltops while refusing to acknowledge the life experiences that, for right or for wrong, have led other people to see their worlds differently.  But when it comes to changing minds, that shouting will get you nowhere.

Conversation is about cultivating a mutual understanding.  It is the attitude of “perhaps if I listen to them, then they will listen to me.”  It’s an approach that gets people to uncross their arms and open their minds, in hopes that once the mind is open, it will be susceptible to change.  I get the sense that a lot of arms have come uncrossed since Charlottesville.  I just hope that our moral outrage doesn’t disable us from taking advantage of that opportunity.

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Military, Politics, USA

Donald Trump’s Military Transgender Ban

I’m willing to entertain the idea that transgender people, as a group, face more challenges than cisgender people when it comes to being equipped to serve in the U.S. military.  Physically, although I’m pretty ignorant of what the transition process really entails, I’d imagine that there would be some challenges that could adversely affect a person’s ability to effectively serve in the field.  Psychologically, I could also imagine how transitioning could be an extremely taxing and difficult process, especially considering the unsupportive-to-hateful attitudes that trans people often encounter in their day-to-day lives.

If a transgender person were deemed unfit for military service due to concerns about their physical and psychological ability, I would have no problem with denying that person the opportunity to serve.  The problem with Donald Trump’s policy, however, is that not all transgender people possess cause for such concerns.

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Donald Trump’s policy is a blanket statement.  It assumes that all transgender people are unfit to serve in the military because of the sole fact that they are a member of that group.  The evidence tells a different story.

Estimates vary, but most agree that there are currently thousands of transgender troops serving in the U.S. military both in active duty and the reserves.  Of this group, there is no shortage of examples to demonstrate the capacity of transgender people to effectively protect and serve their country.   Perhaps the most notable in the aftermath of yesterday is the service of Kristin Beck, a former member of the elite Navy Seal Team 6 who publicly challenged Donald Trump to “tell me to my face why I’m not worthy.”   And while it may be tough to find a lot of people, trans or cisgender, as decorated as Beck, there are plenty of other stories of transgender soldiers who have performed their duty adequately and honorably (i.e. Minnesota natives Capt. Tarrence Robertson and Air Force Maj. Bryan Bree Fram.)

Trump’s policy is hateful and discriminatory, but it is also insulting to the intelligence of the American public.  The series of tweets released yesterday by the president are only the latest blatant attempt to distract the public from the constant shitstorm that is his presidency.  It’s the equivalent of waving something shiny in front of us with his right hand in hopes that we won’t pay attention to what he’s doing with his left.  One day of debating the merits of Trump’s transgender tweets is one day that we are not talking about the Russia investigation.  It’s also an ill-concealed attempt to win back a lot of the conservative base that he had begun to alienate after his attacks on Attorney General and conservative stalwart Jeff Sessions—the story that had been dominating the news cycle before Trump woke up Wednesday and again turned his Twitter account into a Molotov cocktail.

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Trump’s strategy seems to be working.  The country has spent the last two days debating an issue that is not even regarded as official policy by the Pentagon, nor by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain.  Nevertheless, it’s probably a debate that we should be having, because no matter what the policy was or is in regards to this specific issue, it is clear that we as a country (myself included) have a long way to go in accepting and understanding transgender people.

It’s okay to question policy in regards to transgender people serving in the military.  I think it is fair to debate when and if taxpayer dollars should go towards the healthcare costs of transitioning, and how a culture of political correctness could adversely affect the functioning of our military.  What I do not think is fair, however, is turning the T in LGBT into an automatically disqualifying factor when it comes to military service in the United States.  There are too many examples of transgender people who have served successfully and honorably to lend this proposed policy any credibility.

To an extent, the U.S. military can and should discriminate.  People who are not fit to serve for various physical and psychological reasons should not be permitted to do so.  Some transgender people may fall in to this category, but many do not.  That’s why if we Americans are serious about the ideals that our country is founded on, when a transgender person arrives at the recruitment office with the ability to serve, we will give them the opportunity.

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Economics, Minnesota, Politics, USA

Single-payer healthcare in the state of Minnesota

Constitutionally speaking, Americans do not have a right to healthcare.  We have a right to free speech, a right to bear arms, a right to freely practice religion or to be free from religious practice, but we do not have a constitutional right to be cared for when we are sick. Supporters of a single-payer system, myself being one of them, are hoping to change that.

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Legislation creating a single-payer healthcare system, aka “universal healthcare”, aka “Medicare for all”, would not change the Constitution, but it would guarantee all Americans publicly funded access to core medical services.  Obamacare is not an example of this system, but it is perhaps a move in that direction, in the sense that it uses the federal government as a tool to get healthcare in the hands of people that the private market had previously left behind.

Unfortunately, the American Healthcare Act, supported by Trump and currently being considered by the Republican-controlled Congress, threatens to undo a lot of that progress.  Needless to say, this is a pretty disheartening development for single-payer advocates who had viewed Obamacare as a significant step towards their ultimate goal.  That’s why Minnesotan supporters of a single-payer system should turn their attention away from Washington and towards creating a single-payer system here in Minnesota.

In the United States, our federalist system of government grants significant leeway to its semi-sovereign states in controlling their own affairs.  In terms of power, state governments may be inferior to the federal government, but they are not necessarily subordinate to it.  This means that, in the case of healthcare, even though conservative legislators in Washington are fighting for further privatization, progressive state legislators can still fight to enact something more public within their borders.  Even though the American Healthcare Act may have dire consequences for the poor, old, unlucky and underprivileged in other U.S. states, that doesn’t have to be the case for anyone in the state of Minnesota.

Trying to pass single-payer legislation at the state level would be an enormous challenge.  Aside from the politics, the practicality of such a system is pretty daunting.  First and foremost is the cost.  In California, the most recent state to seriously consider a single-payer system, a legislative analysis estimated a $400 billion per year price tag.  That is more than double the entire state budget proposed for next year.

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And what about the system that we already have in place?  As one write-up put it, a single-payer system “may be what any sane and progressive community would adopt if it was creating a health-care system from scratch,” but that is obviously not the case here in the U.S.  The massive systemic overhaul that it would take to transition from the entangled clusterfuck of deductibles and co-pays to a system in which the state government replaces insurance companies, employers, out-of-pocket patients, and the federal government as the “single payer” is head-spinning to say the least.

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And then there are the criticisms that we always hear of single-payer systems—the longer lines, the lower quality, and the lack of responsibility shown by citizens once they get start to get something for “free”.  Some of the criticisms may be exaggerated, but in spite of whatever benefits a single-payer system might bring, I don’t think that there is any doubt that, at least for some patients, these problems would become a reality.

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But in order to be a success, a single-payer system doesn’t need to be perfect.  It just needs to be better than what we currently got.

A single-payer system would be expensive, but the U.S. already pays more for healthcare than any other country in the world, including the myriad of countries that have already adopted single-payer systems.  Even though the California proposal has a price tag of $400 billion, Californians already paid $367 billion for healthcare in 2016, and that doesn’t include the nearly 3 million uninsured residents that didn’t receive coverage, but would under the state plan.  The real difference would be that, rather than paying a for-profit middleman like the private insurance and pharmaceutical companies that currently rake in all those dollars, Californians would be paying the government via taxes.  And while those estimated costs still leave the price tag of single-payer significantly higher ($33 billion according to the estimates), it would also provide core medical services to EVERYONE.

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With everyone being eligible to receive government-sponsored medical care, it would not be surprising to find lines that are a little longer or care that is of slightly lower quality for those accustomed to having the most prestigious of plans.  But if this is the case, then the only reason that those lines were so short in the first place is because some people were not allowed to wait in them, and I’m not okay with that.  Plus, one would imagine that, even under a single-payer system, the economically empowered would still be able to use their financial wherewithal to purchase goods and services not accessible to most.

Implementing a single-payer system of healthcare in Minnesota would not be easy.  Even if the political will were there, inevitable setbacks and complications would surely make the transition process a frustrating one for many.  I don’t know if it would be best to try to implement that system in one fell swoop or in a series of steps, but I do know that these are the types of discussions that should be taking place in the halls of the Minnesota State Capitol.

States are the laboratories of democracy, and Minnesota should be the first to experiment with single-payer healthcare at the state level.  Minnesota may not be the economic powerhouse that California is, but smaller populations than us have made single-payer work, so there’s no reason that we can’t too.  If we can be successful in this endeavor—successful in building a workable, government-funded system that provides quality healthcare to all its citizens—then perhaps Minnesota can serve as a model to other states, and eventually, the federal government.  Healthcare is not a right in the United States, but in Minnesota, it can be and it should be.  We just need to make it happen.

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Minnesota, Race, USA

The killing of Philando Castile and the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez

Jeronimo Yanez and I attended the same university at the same time.  I don’t recall ever meeting him, but we ran with a similar group of friends.  They tell me that Yanez was a good guy—nice, friendly, hardly the monster that many have made him out to be following his deadly encounter with Philando Castile last July.

Nothing I’ve seen over the past year has done anything to make me think otherwise.  Even after watching that horrifying dashcam video in which Yanez pumps seven fatal rounds into the front seat of Castile’s car, I still find him to be a sympathetic figure.  The video hardly portrays a vicious executioner.  The guy’s nervous, he panics, and in the process, he makes the gravest mistake of his life.  It’s obvious that he feels terrible, both then and now, and I feel sorry for him.  But that sympathy isn’t enough to prevent me from adding my voice to the overwhelming chorus who feel that, in the case of State of Minnesota v. Jeronimo Yanez, justice was not served.

I think it’s worth highlighting that Yanez was not being charged with murder.  He was being charged with manslaughter—second degree manslaughter to be exact.  This reflects the notion that we as a society lend police officers a certain amount of leeway not provided to ordinary citizens when it comes to the use of lethal force.  We recognize that police officers perform a difficult and dangerous job in which snap decisions are often necessary, and can make the difference between whether or not an officer lives or dies.

However, when I watch that dashcam video, the definition of second degree manslaughter is exactly what I see. Words like “negligence,” “unreasonable,” and “endangerment,” seem to perfectly describe Yanez’s actions.  He may not have murdered Castile in cold blood, but based on what I’m reading, he still appears criminally culpable for Castile’s death.

But the video admittedly does not provide the whole story.  Despite all the disturbing images that we can see through the lenses of the squad car and Diamond Reynold’s cell phone, we still can’t see exactly what’s happening inside of the car prior to the shooting.  Perhaps this is the primary reason that the jury chose not to convict.  In our justice system, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution, not the defense.  Even though it seems unlikely, there is no hard proof that Castile was not reaching for his gun rather than his license.  There is no hard proof that Officer Yanez did not fear for his life (and if you’ve seen the video, it seems quite likely that he did).  In the United States, the defendant is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and in spite of all the incriminating evidence that the prosecution presented, the jurors still obviously possessed the proverbial reasonable doubt.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that they believed Yanez to be “innocent,” it just means they didn’t feel that they had enough to send him to prison.

This case is unique, and should be treated as such.  What we think about the case should be influenced by the details of this case and this case alone, not by what has or has not happened in similar cases in the recent past.  That said, this case is also so emblematic of the systemic issues inherent in the way that we do criminal justice in this country, that it’s easy to see why people are so quick to make that jump.   From the fact that a black man was pulled over for his resemblance of a suspect in another crime (a.k.a. “driving while black”), to the careful compliance exhibited by the black occupants of the car as they talked to the police (in Reynolds case, even AFTER her boyfriend was shot), to the ultimate acquittal of the officer (are black people innocent until proven guilty?), this case just seems to be such an example of the experience of black people when they come into contact with the criminal justice system and those who administer it.  As one write-up put it, “the system worked as it was designed, it was not built to protect black lives.”  I’m not sure if I agree with everything that that statement implies, but I understand why a black person might.

Even if Yanez had been convicted, that verdict would have given me no pleasure.  This is a disgusting situation in which even “justice” is no real remedy.  As one juror put it, “nobody was ok with it”—nobody was ok with the pain and suffering that will plague each member of the Castile family for the rest of their lives, nor the guilt and regret that Yanez will carry with him for the rest of his.  Yet that juror still chose not to convict. I was not in that court room.  Maybe, legally speaking, acquittal was the right call.  But if this case is not an example of injustice perpetrated by a police officer against a black man, then what in the hell is?

 

 

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History, Minnesota, Politics, Race, USA

The Walker Art Center and the “Scaffold” Controversy

Social justice-centered censorship is sweeping the nation, and this past week, Minneapolis became the temporary epicenter.  The controversy stems from a piece of art that was set to debut at the grand reopening of the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden later this month.  The piece known as Scaffold is intended to represent a commentary on the use and abuse of capital punishment throughout the history of the United States.  Part of that commentary includes a reconstruction of the gallows used in Mankato, Minnesota, during the 1862 hanging of the Dakota 38—the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

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The Scaffold structure has been met with massive resistance from both Native and non-Native peoples alike. That resistance came to a dramatic culmination on Wednesday afternoon with the joint decision to dismantle and burn the structure in a ceremony led by Dakota Spiritual Leaders and Elders. But while Scaffold’s run has ended before it ever really began, the conversation that is taking place in the Twin Cities and around the country is just getting started, and I personally am still trying to figure out where on these issues I stand.

Although artist Sam Durant intended Scaffold to be an awareness generating piece about the historic plight of Native populations, I understand the concerns about the unintended messages that the piece may also convey.  Chief amongst these is the structure’s location in the Walker Sculpture Garden—a less than solemn place with frolicking couples and children, mini golf, and a giant rooster and a cherry.  As one write-up puts it, “context matters,” and the context of the Walker Sculpture Garden may contribute to the trivialization of one of our State’s gravest injustices.

Another concern is the neglect of Native voices in the retelling of a story that is particularly impactful to indigenous people in this part of the country.  Sam Durant is a white guy from L.A., and while he has collaborated with Native groups in the past, this project was completed without any attempts at outreach to the Dakota peoples who the project is about. What is more, while in negotiations to obtain Scaffold, the Walker Art Center never reached out to Dakota groups in the community, which in hindsight, should have been a no-brainer considering the gruesome nature of the project and its intimate ties to that tribe’s history.

But all that said, I also understand a lot of the resistance to the resistance of the soon-to-be-burned structure.  Scaffold is a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s an example of genocide opportunism. A reading of Sam Durant’s near instant apology can quickly punch holes in that accusation.  The project’s actual intention was “to speak against the continued marginalization of these stories and people, and to build awareness around their significance.”  Misguided methods? Perhaps. But after reading the letter in full, Durant hardly seems like the kind of a guy seeking to exploit tragedy for personal gain.  Even the highly criticized “jungle gym” component of the project stems from a thoughtful albeit questionable attempt to comment on the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon so prevalent in communities of color today.

I also have to say that I got some respect for a fellow white guy doing his darndest to challenge oppression and privilege in the world, especially when he doesn’t have to.  As a member of the most dominant group in almost every major demographic category, guys like Durant don’t need to tackle injustice, because on a systemic level, they probably don’t often face it.  I’m not trying to paint Durant as a hero, and that kind of observation may sound tone deaf considering the gravity of the issue at hand, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  Perhaps it’s also that ignorance to experienced oppression that leads to the blundering nature in which guys like Durant (and myself) try to address said oppression, no matter how pure his (my) intentions might be.  But while it’s not always the thought that counts, the thought still counts for something, and what Durant is doing is exactly what us white guys are supposed to do in fighting oppression and dismantling our own privilege—starting conversations in our communities, with our people, and trying to create change.

Cultural appropriation is often a term that gets tossed around to describe artists like Durant who try to tell stories that aren’t theirs to tell. But while misappropriation is certainly a thing, and perhaps applicable here, there also seems to have been a societal shift in what we define as tasteless or insensitive appropriation of someone else’s culture. Bob Dylan sang songs about both Emmett Till and Rubin Carter in the 60s and 70s, and I’ve yet to find an article that condemns him as a “racism opportunist.” On the contrary, Dylan is constantly recognized as an American civil rights hero who used his art to draw attention to repressed and silenced voices, even if the experiences of those voices were a far cry from his own.

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Sam Durant is no Bob Dylan. Even if he thought that he was, he knows differently now:

“I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists …However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.”

Hopefully Durant has learned from this experience as much as his statement seems to suggest.  Hopefully he remains encouraged, and continues to try use his position of power and influence to do good in the world. If there is any solace he can take from this catastrophe, it’s that his project still accomplished its intended goal—it started a conversation. It’s not exactly the conversation that he intended, but it’s an important conversation nonetheless, and no matter what side of the issue you’re on, or what your ethnic background is, or what your beliefs are regarding the myriad of –isms at play, there is understanding to be gained for those willing to listen and learn, especially considering the fact that no one in this conversation seems to disagree that injustice is something that we need to address.  If nothing else, Sam, thanks for that.

 

Recommended viewing to learn about the Dakota 38:

 

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